Emerging Voices

The Labyrinth of Good Intentions: Transmitting Repressed Trauma via Fairy Tales

Wiliam Peat Jr.

William Peat Jr. is the public information specialist for the New York State Emergency Management Office.  He has worked in emergency management for more than 15 years, providing operational support for events such as the 1996 TWA Flight 800 incident in Long Island and the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Bill recently graduated from Empire State College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Cultural Studies.  He currently is pursuing a graduate degree in Communications at the University of Albany. Bill lives in Albany, NY and his interests include reading, traveling and spending time with his family.  

The daughter who narrates Lisa Goldstein’s story Breadcrumbs and Stones believes that her inexplicable fear and distrust of society comes from her mother, and endeavors to discover the truth. The daughter recalls her mother telling bits and pieces of fairy tales, especially parts of Hansel and Gretel, and wonders if this was her mother’s way of relating her experience of the Nazi occupation during World War II. At the end of Goldstein’s story, the mother leads her daughters into a wooded area, where she finally divulges the truth of her past: during the war, she disguised her Jewish ethnicity by living as a Christian girl among the enemy Nazis. She witnessed the capture of her brother by the Nazis, who eventually put him to death in a concentration camp. Since then, the mother has been, understandably, fearful and distrustful of society. Once the truth is told, however, the daughters still feel ‘lost in the woods,’ abandoned, and they feel as if their mother has left them to survive on their own, just as Gretel’s parents abandoned their daughter

Like Magda Denes’ Castles Burning: A Child’s Life in War (1997) or Louise Murphy’s The True Story of Hansel and Gretel: A Novel of War and Survival (2003), the fairy tale is used as a metaphor for the experience of the Holocaust, as a means of either better understanding that experience or for altering dreadful reality. In Murphy’s novel, the former intent is explored through the reader’s experience of living through the war with the children, witnessing atrocities through the eyes of those trying to survive the war. Denes’ novel explores the latter concept – disguising reality to mitigate psychological trauma: “the tale of [Denes’] journey toward survival … ends with a revalidation of the utopian genre and its imaginative space …” (Haase 370). However, whereas these other narratives provide insight and provoke emotional reactions, they also exist in the past. Goldstein’s story resides in the “now” – the mother and her daughters are still actively suffering from the events of the Holocaust. The reader shares not only their experiences, but also the reader is also placed in the same temporal and spatial proximity as the characters, and thus compelling the reader to ask is there anything that I can do to help them escape from the forest?

Parallels to the Original Folktale

The original folktale of Hansel and Gretel, documented in the nineteenth century by the Brothers Grimm, takes place in a society that does not place much worth on the lives of its children: “’Hansel and Gretel’ does not so much stage a child’s fears about starvation, exposure, and abandonment as mirror the hard facts of the pre-modern era” (Tatar 180). Facing the distressing effects of famine, a woodcutter is hesitant to sacrifice his children for his own survival, but his wife is determined that if the children are spared, the whole family will perish. This brutal example of self-survival is indicative of a time when few options seemed to exist to ensure a community’s future, forced to sacrifice its younger inhabitants to ensure continuance, and forsaking temporary emotional and spiritual benefit for physical longevity. In modern society, such an act would be considered shocking and unnecessary; yet, as unpardonable as an option regarding the sacrifice of children to ensure the survival of the community at large might seem today, the fact that such a work as Hansel and Gretel simply exists speaks to the possibility that such an option was exercised during this time. Consider John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, a concept of considerable influence in the late mid-nineteenth century, which argued persuasively that the needs of the many in society outweigh the needs of the few.

In the tale, Hansel and Gretel confront their greatest fear, the witch, who represents the alter ego version of a mother who promises her children warmth and food, yet actually overprotects, and thus, attempts to devour them. The comforting shelter of the family home is replaced with the gingerbread house, a place of false security, of debilitating and ultimately death-inducing solitude and detachment from society. The mother’s oven is transformed from a tool that provides food into a machine of destruction, representing the mother’s attempt to return the children to the womb, which no longer offers nourishment, but a barren place for dying.

If, as Bettelheim suggests, the mother in Hansel and Gretel represents “the source of all food to the children,” (Tatar 273) it may be suggested that Nazi Germany represents the same to the Jewish mother Margaret, as a government originally conceived as what could be considered to be a source of ideological or spiritual nourishment to its citizens. Sadly, the Nazi occupation of Germany ultimately birthed a powerful movement that endeavored to eradicate the Jewish population who once shared in that nourishment. Taken from their homes, like Hansel and Gretel, Jews transported to concentration camps (think gingerbread houses) were eventually murdered.

Margaret’s daughter Sarah becomes aware of her mother’s tempering of the truth when she recounts her memory of the fairy tales she was told as a child: “And the witch tries to – to cook them-” “To cook Hansel. Oh my God, Lynne, she was talking about the ovens. The ovens in the camps” (Goldstein 395). Sarah’s revelation reveals that Margaret’s exposure to the trauma she experienced during the Nazi occupation has caused her to internalize her emotions, excluding her daughters from her past and disconnecting them from the truth. Both mothers in this story – Germany and Margaret – are incapable of providing the type of nourishment that is required to ensure survival in either a physical or spiritual sense. The children in both stories are left on their own to fend for themselves, using what they can find from their environment to help them try and return home.

In the original fairy tale, white stones that Hansel gathers, a white cat and dove perched atop their home, and a white duck that carries the children across the stream help guide the children home. In Goldstein’s story, there is no omnipresent guiding force. The daughters try to discover the truth for themselves, despite their mother’s attempt to mislead them for what she may believe is their own well-being. The breadcrumbs in Goldstein’s tale are symbols of deception that have lead the girls astray from the truth: “It seems to me that all my life my mother had given me…breadcrumbs instead of stones. That she had done this on purpose, told me the gaudiest, most wonder-filled lies she knew, so that I would not ask for anything more and stumble on her secret” (406). However, if Margaret is incapable of coming to terms with her trauma, her deception may not be practiced “on purpose,” but could be indicative of deep-seated trauma repression.

Repression of Trauma

In The International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma (1998), Yael Danieli discusses the possible causes of trauma repression in Holocaust survivors: “The reactions of society at large to survivors have a significant negative effect on their posttrauma adaptation and their ability to integrate their traumatic experiences … The resulting conspiracy of silence between Holocaust survivors and society has proven detrimental to the survivors’ familial and sociocultural reintegration by intensifying their already profound sense of isolation, loneliness, and mistrust of society” (4). It is unclear whether this “conspiracy of silence” is what causes Margaret to use fairy tales to deal with her trauma intentionally, either to keep her daughters safe from a horrible truth or as an attempt to return to innocence. Her reasons are of little consequence, because the result is the same – by repressing her trauma in the context of the fairy tale device, Margaret succeeds in deceiving and confusing her daughters. The question is whether her deception is ultimately beneficial to her daughters.

Several authors claim that fairy tales are indeed beneficial to the well-being of children; perhaps most famously is Bruno Bettelheim’s opinion that these imaginative stories can help children work though emotional and psychological problems. In The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman summarizes Bettelheim’s position efficiently by stating that fairy tales provide children with a context whereby the existence of evil can be revealed in a reassuring and therapeutic form “that permits children to integrate [evil] without trauma” (94). Others claim that the fairy tale exists as an ideal, utopian setting into which children can project themselves in order to defend themselves psychologically, becomes liberated from their limited physical surroundings, or to attempt to recapture their lost home (Haase 361-62).

The 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth, directed by Guillermo del Toro, demonstrates this concept effectively, inviting the viewer to witness a child’s attempt to reconcile the collision of a harsh, real world with her fairy tale perception of life. Ofelia, the main character of del Toro’s story, uses the fairy tale landscape to transport her consciousness to another place in an attempt to face her fears by believing in something beyond her reality – something with a valiant purpose, other than just basic survival. And who can argue against imagination as tool for coping with pain?

U.C. Knoepflmacher addresses the issue of trauma repression, stating that the ending to the Brothers Grimm version of Hansel and Gretel invites the reader to repress the past (172) and that Murphy’s True Story of Hansel and Gretel suggests that repression is the best antidote to trauma (182). He claims that Murphy’s tale suggests that amnesia leads to repression; however, amnesia is not repression – it is merely loss of memory. In addition, the original fairy tale’s “happy ending” may not advocate repression so much as attempt to achieve vindication borne of the desire to recapture home. As Bettelheim suggests, “…fairy tales give [children] confidence that [they] can master not only the real dangers…but even those vastly exaggerated ones which [they] fear exist” (Tatar 279). Hansel and Gretel succeed in mastering “real dangers” by using their intellect to outwit and kill the witch, returning home to the father whose wife has suddenly, and without much drama, perished. The children’s return to the father is not necessarily an example of repressing parental betrayal, but of seeking forgiveness or redemption after succeeding in triumphing over the evils of the pre-modern world.

The daughters of Goldstein’s story are not so fortunate – Lynne and Sarah’s “exaggerated dangers” are manifest by their unwillingness to participate fully in society, fearful of unknown, terrible futures not yet realized. “That’s why I don’t have any furniture, because at the back of my mind…I always think, What if I have to flee?” (391-392) Margaret leads her daughters to the woods in the hopes that they will find a way home, but this will not be easy, because there is no home in a material sense to which they can return. The girls’ path through the woods is not a physical, but a mental and spiritual journey. It is a path not easily navigated, because “home” is but a distant memory of a social concept – the Nazi occupation – long since perverted, invalidated and abandoned by society.

Transmission of Repressed Trauma

Kenneth Kidd’s ’A’ is for Auschwitz includes reference to trauma theorist Cathy Caruth who, in her study titled Unclaimed Experience (1996), states that instead of dealing with trauma, “we pass trauma along to the next person … keeping trauma unconscious and always moving” (126). According to Caruth, this type of trauma transmission should be regarded as ethical because response and representation of trauma is both impossible and traumatic in itself, inaugurating “an ethics of collective memory and cultural work.” (Kidd 127) This allegedly “ethical” transmission of trauma assumes the role of society as active participants sharing traumatic experiences and exploring methods that would attempt to prevent events like the Holocaust from occurring again. This type of trauma transmission may indeed be deemed ethical because it infers that the truth of atrocity underlies and gives form to the intellectual discussion that follows from its perceived transmission.

Some modern-day trauma theorists believe that all traumas are “fictive deflections from an unsettling past that has become unrepresentable” (Knoepflmacher 176-177). As we see in Goldstein’s story, because the mother’s trauma is partly “unrepresentable,” she represses the trauma, yet she unwittingly transmits trauma externally via bits and pieces of fairy tales. When trauma is transmitted through metaphor – what we might call “transmission of repressed trauma” – trauma is not only transmitted on an unconscious level, but is also comprised of a substantive emotional and psychological quality that proves almost impossible to be identified and, therefore, cannot be properly dealt with. Mothers desire to keep their children safe from harm, but must eventually release them children from the maternal nest for them to become independent adults. Traumatized mothers may experience added difficulties in carrying out this duty, as expressed by Auerhahn and Laub, who claim to have “encountered a number of survivors who could not cope when their children separated and became different from the dream of the reconstituted family the parents had lived for.” (Danieli 38)

The mother of Goldstein’s story veils the truth with bits and pieces of fairy tales, perhaps to maintain the reconstituted family that Auerhahn and Laub suggest, or to attempt what Donald Haase suggests is the transformation of trauma through a desire to return home by mapping the traumatic experience of the Holocaust with a “fairy-tale landscape” (366). The sociological behavior of the mother is adopted by her children as a model for their own lifestyle; the daughters inherit their mother’s trauma and, therefore, may become hopelessly attached to the mother’s version of reality. Auerhahn and Laub suggest that this attachment “may become the matrix within which normal development conflict takes place.” (Danieli 38) The daughters feel abandoned when they attempt to confront their fear, because they have no concrete point in time or space with which to begin – this place resides with the mother, who is either unaware of the need to divulge the truth or unwillingly to revisit her past for the potential well-being of her children. In attempting to transform her trauma, the mother has deceived her children.

In a reversal of the traditional tale, Margaret offers her daughters breadcrumbs first, and then stones. This proves confusing to the children because Margaret tells so many vague truths that her daughters can no longer discern what is real: “the path did not look at all familiar” (Goldstein 406). Although Margaret does not seem to convey the qualities of Bettelheim’s “impoverished and deprived” character, she does succeed in reversing symbols of truth and fantasy and, despite her good intentions, strands her children in the woods as effectively as does the woodcutter’s wife. The stepmother of the original tale deprives the children of physical nourishment out of an act of self-survival and a desperate, if an unjustified, exaggerated and inherently evil attempt to protect her community from extinction. Margaret similarly acts out of self-survival, but her method of coping with psychological trauma caused by the death of her brother and atrocities committed against Jews during World War II consequently deprives her daughters of emotional and spiritual nourishment. The mother’s duty to release her children is not carried out and the children, in a sense, never leave their mother’s “nest” of built by trauma and repression. By misleading her children down a fairy tale path to keep them safe from the truth, the children enter society with a false sense of reality.

Yael Danieli states that the effects of intergenerational trauma and its effects on social and public health are “only now becoming more widely acknowledged” and that children intuitively “pick up on the defensive structures of traumatized parents and the repressed, dissociated, and warded off trauma … found in adults’ parenting styles” (37). She goes on to state, although the trauma experienced by their parents remains a mystery for the children, “fraught with myths and fantasies,” that the continual psychological presence of the Holocaust at home contributes to the children’s “absorbing” of the Holocaust experience (5). Margaret’s daughters, even in their adult years, continue to question the source of their confusion and mistrust because the truth remained hidden for so many years within the fairy tale landscape. Although the truth is revealed at the end of the story, their sense of reality is irrevocably altered and the question now becomes what is real?

Children ’s Literature as Forum for Trauma Work

As the effects of multigenerational trauma are brought to light, we must acknowledge that these effects should be addressed at an early age in a child’s life to mitigate the harmful effects of trauma at a later age. However, if, as Kidd claims, children’s literature is an appropriate forum for trauma work (120), that literature must confront not only the source of trauma, but also the lingering influences that the original trauma has had upon its recipients. Knoepflmacher writes that these effects must include “childhood trauma induced by parental desertion and the threat of annihilation” (176), but the “defensive structures” in parenting styles that Danieli mentions must also be taken into account. Of course, as Italian artist Roberto Innocenti noted, the ideal situation in which to conduct this type of trauma work is with children and adults working together to deal with sensitive subjects like the Holocaust (O’Sullivan 155), so long as the adults affected by trauma are capable of honestly and effectively coming to terms with their own trauma beforehand.

Knoepflmacher claims that the children’s literature of trauma must be “refigured in narratives that promote the transformation of thinking children into thinking adults” (176). The bigger question may be, as Kertzer observes, “At what age then, do child readers become adults?” (242) Part of the answer may come from Freud who claims, as Neil Postman summarizes in his work The Disappearance of Childhood (1994), that the “earliest interactions between child and parents are decisive in determining the kind of adult the child will be; through reason, the passions of the mind may be controlled; civilization is quite impossible without repression and sublimation” (62). Another key is Dewey, who believed that this interaction must be confined within the boundaries of the individual intellect in order for the child to become a constructive participant in society; in other words, “What does the child need now? What problems must he or she solve now?” (Postman 63) To summarize: reason tempered by repression and sublimation – that is to say, not repression of trauma, but the suppression of exposure to it. Postman believed that the lines between adulthood and childhood are slowly fading in modern times because of the disappearance of secrets, in thanks partly to the increase of access to “adult” subjects such as sex and violence via the medium of television and the internet: “Without secrets, of course, there can be no such thing as childhood” (80). Concerning trauma, it might be said that, for children at a certain age, some things are best kept secret. It is the parent’s solemn duty to determine, through careful observation and constant interaction with their children, the appropriate age at which to divulge these secrets so as not to confuse or deceive with indeterminate consequences.

The “fairy tale treatment” of reality may provide us with an important, benign perspective to horrific events in history, showing how we deal with trauma and tragedy over time without having to relive all of the gruesome details. Repressing trauma within a fairy tale matrix may ensure its continued transmission without the detrimental effects of exposing children to horror and grief, and it advocates the utopian ideal – the belief that the world can exist as a better place. As adults, we may come to understand what the fairy tale really means, and that landscape, once visited in youth, will continue to exist as a place where we can return and revisit our innocence whenever we choose. Nevertheless, we must ask if it is ethical to allow ourselves to transmit repressed trauma to our unknowing children, especially when that same repressed trauma gradually infiltrates the adult experience, leaving the individual to wonder why they fear what they cannot understand. The question may be rephrased and expanded upon in the context of Mill’s Utilitarianism: are the actions of the mothers justified in contributing to the moral value of the society? In the original fairy tale, we can answer this question positively – although there is loss beyond words, there is the physical continuance of the society, which, with time and healing, may recover from the emotional and spiritual consequences of its horrific actions. For Margaret, as a trauma victim, it is simply not reasonable to suggest an action that places her mental and physical well-being in danger to be acted upon without perceiving oneself as a legitimate dispenser of ultimate knowledge and moral virtue. If she wishes to bury her conscience in dreams, alternate realities, or the “fairy tale landscape” to escape a painful past, is it anyone’s right to dissuade her from her pleasure, so long as those actions do not adversely affect society?

The answer must be different when those actions do significantly influence the lives of others, especially children who rely upon their parents to teach them how to discern ethical virtue from moral depravity and truth from deception. Perhaps the best place to begin trauma work is, indeed, with children. Knowing that the healing work of the trauma victim results in not only their own happiness, but also that of their children’s, may be incentive enough for the process to begin.


Works Cited

Danieli, Yael, ed. The International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma. New York: Plenum Press, 1998.

Goldstein, Lisa. “Breadcrumbs and Stones.” Snow White, Blood Red. Ed. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. New York: EOS, 1993.

Haase, Donald. “Children, War, and the Imaginative Space of Fairy Tales.” The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children's Literature, 24:3 (2000 Sept): 360-77.

Kertzer, Adrienne. “’Do You Know What ‘Auschwitz’ Means?’ Children's Literature and the Holocaust”. The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children's Literature, 23:2 (1999 Apr): 238-56.

Kidd, Kenneth. “’A’ is for Auschwitz: Psychoanalysis, Trauma Theory, and the ‘Children’s Literature of Atrocity.’” Children's Literature, 33 (2005): 120-49.

Knoepflmacher, U.C. “The Hansel and Gretel Syndrome: Survivorship Fantasies and Parental Desertion.” Children’s Literature, 33 (2005): 171-84.

Murphy, Louise. The True Story of Hansel and Gretel: A Novel of War and Survival. New York: Penguin, 2003.

O’Sullivan, Emer. “Rose Blanche, Rosa Weiss, Rosa Blanca: A Comparative View of a Controversial Picture Book.” The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children's Literature, 29:2 (2005 Apr): 152-70.

Postman, Neil. The Disappearance of Childhood. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Tatar, Maria, ed. The Classic Fairy Tales. New York: Norton, 1999.


William Peat Jr.

Volume 13, Issue 1 The Looking Glass, Jan/Feb, 2009

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